26 September 2010

Why I love grasses for fall colour

It's been a few years since my fascination with ornamental grasses began. I started out slowly, with a couple of Miscanthus varieties, then a Hakonechloa, then a Calamagrostis. It takes grasses at least three years to develop some size, and the warm-season grasses seem slow to establish and late to bloom here in my garden. But they are so worth it. The foliage, the flowerheads, the way the light glistens on leaf blades and flowers, the song of the grasses as the wind wafts through them...they're just all around delightful.

There are a few caveats when purchasing grasses.
You need to make sure to select the right grass for your conditions, as some are very drought tolerant but hate soggy soil, while others need regular moisture.
Most are happiest with full sun, but some are shade tolerant.
Some bloom early in summer, like the feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis), while others, such as the panic grasses (Panicum) and silver maiden grasses (Miscanthus) are later blooming.
Make sure to select varieties that are clump or sod-formers, rather than rowdies that spread by runners. There are a few grasses that can be thuggish, such as gardener's garters or variegated ribbon grass (Phalaris). In some areas, Japanese blood grass is invasive, but here in NS it tends to be quite well behaved, being marginally hardy.
And most importantly, watch out for zone hardiness. There are a few fountain grasses (Pennisetum) which are hardy here in Nova Scotia: 'Hameln', 'Karley Rose', possibly 'Red Head', but purple fountain grass cultivars (Pennisetum 'Fireworks', above, among others) are hardy only to zone 7 or 8 or warmer. There are a few places that sell those grasses here without telling you that they're not hardy, but a reputable garden centre such as Baldwin's or Ouestville Perennials or Briar Patch or Bunchberry Nurseries won't do that.

The feather reed grasses (Calamagrostis cultivars such as 'Karl Foerster', 'Overdam' and 'Avalanche') bloomed in July, but their tawny golden seedheads are still holding on nicely in my garden. I do find their stems are a little more apt to break down in the wind than are those of other grasses, but I love them anyway.

On Friday, I was in Truro at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College, and my friend Carol took me down to the Haley Institute at the farm part of the campus, to show me the grass garden that she and her students planted a few years ago. It's at its best now, with sedums, pussytoes, asters and coneflowers mixed among the cascades and fountains of perennial grasses.

Some people like to do their grasses in display beds of grass only. While I like those, I get impatient earlier in the season when the grasses are just growing and not blooming, so I prefer to incorporate perennials and shrubs with my grasses, as the garden at NSAC is done.

Doesn't this look a lot better than just boring old lawn? Low care, drought tolerant, effective at holding the sloped area in place, and awash with life--birds, bees, other pollinators flitting around the flowers and seedheads.

I love panic grasses, also known as switchgrasses. Their flowerheads are delicate, with tiny individual flowers, and they're subtle--you need to slow down, stop and look at them to appreciate them. Many have gorgeous coloured foliage, some with red or burgundy tips such as 'Shenandoah' or 'Cheyenne Sky'; others are bluer in foliage, such as 'Dallas Blues' and 'Thunderhead'.

Definitely showier in nature, and eyecatchingly fabulous throughout fall and winter, are the miscanthus species and cultivars also known as silvergrasses and maidengrasses. These later blooming varieties stand tall in a garden, and sound like waves of water when the wind rustles them. Some of them have remarkable fall colour, including purple flame grass, M. 'Purpurascens'. Some have wonderful gold striations in their foliage, such as 'Strictus', 'Gold Bar', and 'Little Kitten.'. They're just great plants.

The best way to get to know and appreciate grasses is to look for display gardens featuring them, such as those at many nurseries. This garden is at Bunchberry in Upper Clements, and features a rich selection of grasses, from the low clumps of Carex 'Ice Dance' to the tall, elegant sprays of moor grass, Molinia 'Skyracer'. Many municipalities are using grasses in their public plantings, businesses are embracing them for their landscapes...what are YOU waiting for?

Don't ask me how many grasses I have. I keep bringing them home, even now in late September. And best of all, I've given my sister her first grass. She's on her way to being smitten with them. I hope you are too.


  1. I am a lover of ornamental grasses and have many varieties that bloom at different times in the year. They are architectural even in winter. Very good post.

  2. Jodi a wonderful post, grasses are the staple in my garden. Could not be without them and I am always dividing thus giving me more.

  3. I love ornamental grasses too, Jodi. The nice thing is, there are beautiful ones for every climate.

  4. Jodi girl I think you might remember that I am a grass freak : )
    It started out with one miscanthus and lead to so many others incorporated in a fairly small garden area but I love mixing them with the perennials .. I think they make the best of friends ! .. I just planted Red Head this year and she looks lovely already .. she is up against my neighbor's foundation so I am hoping there won't be a question of survival for her!
    I can't imagine not having grasses .. and I feel sorry for the gardeners that truly balk at having them in their gardens .. they don't know what they are missing, do they?! .. and yes ! that glorious sound when the wind whips through them .. makes me HAPPY : )
    Love this post girl !!

  5. I see these posts about grasses and I think why don't I have more. I have only two grasses. The Jap forest grass (can't remember which one) and a grass that a friend gave me, it didn't come with a name. I love to see them but in my mostly shady garden there aren't many that will grow here. I will just have to admire them from afar.

  6. Just sent someone back to that post that started your Spotlight Saturdays. Looking forward to more, when you can. My grasses start with our restios, and the winter grass that nature brings, and then some of your list too!

  7. You've almost got me convinced Jodi except my clover lawn is more meadow than lawn and has lots of native grasses, I don't know the names of, as well as domestic grasses like timothy growing in it, so rather than purposely plant grasses in my flower beds I'm going to encourage the ones in the meadow. I guess I just have an alternate/ indie or different garden.

  8. Such a pretty post, jodi. I do love grasses but have only used them in containers. If I ever redo my rock garden, it seems the only logical place for me to incorporate them.

  9. This is their time to shine isn't it? Love the grasses and I need more. It doesn't end does it?

  10. Jodi, these are gorgeous! I am sold. :) I had a few Blue Fescue in my first front garden and will be adding some 'Karl Foerster' to this garden. Love them in the wind.

  11. This is a very interesting post! I also love grasses, even the wild ones. For me, they look so refreshing and inspiring.
    You have nice collections of grasses here, and your photo collages are equally great.

  12. Hi Jodi~~ I'm in Zone 8 and purple fountain grass is NOT hardy here. It needs a frost free environment. Frozen temps will kill it dead! Believe me, I've tried. :)

    Lovely photos, Jodi. Have you tried Stipa gigantea? You simply must. It's an evergreen-blue, clumper. The mound doesn't get more than two feet tall but the oat-like inflorescenses jut up to 8 feet in early summer. Every garden needs this stunning grass. I just can't resist touting it. Hope you don't mind. . . .

  13. Dear Jodi, The ornamental grasses are indeed extremely varied and give great interest to the garden. I too love the way they add movement and catch the light and add an altogether different dimension to the perennial border.

    At present, I am particularly favouring Stip tenuissima but really I do like so many of them when, as you say, they are thriving in conditions which suit them. However,that said, I shall never like Carex comans!

  14. You've inspired me. I'm making a list of musthave grasses for next year. Too late here to find anything at local garden centers.

  15. Hi fellow grass fans!

    Edith, you KNOW I giggled when you uttered your words about Carex comans. I have one planted with a rich succulent (an Aeonium, I believe) and a portulaca, and it's quite handsome. But it's okay if you don't love it. We all have our quirks.

    Sadly, I haven't had any success with stipas in the past, but am willing to try again if I can find one that is even zone-6 hardy. Inspired by my friend Tony Chaulk, I'm ever-willing to push the zones. Nothing but global warming, alas, will allow me to enjoy pinky Muhly grass.

    Grace, good to know about the Pennisetum 'Fireworks' and its kin. I am going to attempt to overwinter mine in the basement, so long as I can keep the cats from dining on them. Same with the black mondo 'grass', which some can overwinter out of doors here but I haven't been able to. Taking one clump to a friend to propagate, just in case.

    For anyone in Nova Scotia, I'm told the grasses at Annapolis Royal Historic Gardens are currently at their peak of gloriousness.

  16. Dear Jodi, I have a few grasses and love them, but don't think I am using them to their full potential. This posting has given me an idea that would "fix" a problem herbaceous border. I plan on spending more time studying your pictures to see how to combine them with plants in my garden. Excellent posting. Pam

  17. Jodi, I love ornamental grasses whenever I see them in other gardens or in mass plantings, but I've always been afraid to try them myself. I took the plunge earlier this summer and bought my first ones--two 'Shenandoah' switch grasses. Now I'm ready to add more! I'm going to bookmark this page as a great reference for future purchases.

  18. Hi Jodi,
    My husband insisted on buying some grasses when we first moved here, and I was not a fan of them. I don't mind them now, but I do cut part of one of them back, because it sprawls over some of my other plants.

    Those beds sure look nice with the grasses. I may have to think about putting a couple at the other end of the bed the others are in.

  19. I really like all the grasses that you featured have here. They are so graceful and lovely. Grasses, even ornamental ones are just not popular here in my country. We do grow lawn grass but ornamental grass with flowers will be regarded as weeds, sigh :(

  20. I've become quite smitten with grasses too. One day we hope to replace all of the front lawn with grasses and other plants that are drought tolerant.

  21. I must be honest and say that ornamental grasses don't really do anything for me. Not saying they can't be lovely in people's gardens, but they're definitely not high on the list of things that float my boat :)

  22. It is so beautiful. I remember back when grasses were just pulled out, now where I live, we have areas in the driveway sides that have the grasses and to me they are beautiful.
    Funny how ones ideas change.

  23. Hi, Doris here from the mid Canadian prairies. I could not imagine my pond's edge without grasses. Whether they be annual or perennial. I enjoy my feather reed grass swaying in the wind along with my palm sedge standing stately by my iron cranes. Thanks for the great images. Love them!!

  24. This is excellent advice. Especially for those of us who are into gardening. Blogging is great, I am relatively new to it but I really like doing it. I probably like blogging because I like gardening. Lol.

  25. Hello Jodi - I am playing catch up with your blog.

    I am also a big fan of grasses and this is a great post as you have included so much information - I now need to go and check out "cheyenne sky"



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